Readers of my blog and those familiar with my teaching know that I place the highest emphasis on the visceral activation of the actor: if the actor can somehow involve the muscles and nerves in the lower abdomen, the so-called Pilates core, in her work, then her work will shine, pretty much no matter what. It’s not an easy thing to do, especially when you know others are watching, as they always are for actors, and when you have lines to say and other things to keep an eye on.
So it was with great pleasure that I discovered a wonderful discussion of the primacy of the lower abdomen in the book Zen Training Methods and Philosophy by Katsuki Sekida. We are reading excerpts from the book in my new advanced class, and this is one of them. This chapter is an absolutely extraordinary explication of the importance of this region for any endeavor.
Why is this region, called the tanden or “energy garden”, so important? Well, one reason is that the muscles in the lower abdomen control the breathing apparatus. By engaging these muscles, the pressure is placed on the diaphragm, which drives inhalation and exhalation. As Sekida puts it:
In according such importance to the tanden we do not question that it is the brain that thinks, plans, and gives orders; but what carries out the directions of the brain is, in the first place, the abdominal muscle structure, together with the diaphragm. If they do not go to work, no scheme is translated into action. You cannot produce a piece of music by simply staring at the score. When the respiratory muscles set to work, mental—or spiritual—power is put into action.
Even if you are breathing shallowly, into your chest, you cannot do it without some engagement from the muscles in the lower abdomen. Without them, nothing happens. Now consider the words “respiration”, “inspiration” and “spirit”. The common root speaks for itself. Respiration is re-spiriting yourself. Without the abdominal muscles, that would never happen.
Or as Sekida starkly restates:
Our contention, then, is that controlled respiration generates spiritual power, and that attention, which is actually spiritual power, can never be exercised without tension in the tanden. Some detailed examples may serve to explain this idea further.
He goes on to explain how in a variety of disciplines of performance, from circus to calligraphy to cartography to tea ceremony to sumo wrestling, the abdominal respiratory muscles of the tanden play an absolutely essential role. He even discusses American football:
Now let us stop and think of the players’ posture just before their dash, and consider how they are breathing, and what part of the body is particularly tensed at the moment of darting forward. The breath, of course, will be stopped, arms and legs tensed. But how about the abdomen? In reality, you cannot dart forward if strength is not thrown into the abdomen. Even if you throw your entire body against your opponent, if the center of gravity is not fixed in the lower abdomen, and the hips and buttocks are not supporting the center of gravity from below, you will undoubtedly suffer a severe fall. All Americans must know that the momentary collision is not merely the percussion of two bodies: it is a combat between spiritual powers.
A combat between spiritual powers. A more fitting description of the drama could hardly be found, and indeed, the great drama critic Richard Gilman loved to quote Henry James’ discussion of Ibsen, in whose work he saw “the ego against the ego, the soul against the soul”.
So all of this, I think, helps to explain why I place the emphasis that I do on visceral activation in the training of the actor. Much of what actors do is talk, which seems to be an activity of the one of the extremities: the jaw. It can be done with minimal involvement of the tanden. But if that is how it is done, everyone watching instinctively understands that nothing important is happening, and they are likely to remember that they have a scratch in their throat and start coughing, or take out their smart phones and start tweeting about how bored they are, or, worse still, get up and leave.
Sekida’s focus is on the engagement of the abdominal muscles, but that is only half the story: the receptive nerves in the tanden are vital as well. In the pit of our stomachs, we measure our standing with our world, especially with our social world. The actor needs this apparatus as much as he needs the muscles. When both the active and receptive principles are active in the core, and not merely in the solar plexus, or the throat, or in the face, then the actor is living FULLY under imaginary circumstances. It’s rare enough that anyone who witnesses it feels they are experiencing a miracle. And, in fact they are: they are seeing the actor conduct and distribute spiritual energy through their cores. Our society needs this now, sad to say, more than ever.